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Two dead in Clearwater after personal watercraft collides with tour boat

CLEARWATER — Two people on a personal watercraft died Saturday evening after colliding with a tour boat near the Clearwater Memorial Causeway bridge.

Around 6:10 p.m., about an hour before sunset, a 51-year-old man and a 49-year-old woman on a rented personal watercraft crashed into a double-deck tour boat on a dolphin-sighting cruise, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which is investigating.

The pair were from out of state, and authorities did not release their identities Saturday night.

No one on the tour boat, from the Tropics Boat Tours out of Clearwater, was injured.

Around 10 p.m., the tour boat's owner, Trisha Rodriguez of Palm Harbor, came off the boat at its dock near Pier 60 at Clearwater Beach.

"Our thoughts and our prayers are with the family affected by this tragic accident," she said, voice cracking. "This has never happened to us before. It's a tragedy."

Investigators at the scene asked her not to answer questions about the number of passengers on the tour boat or share other details about the incident, citing their active investigation.

But passengers leaving the tour boat earlier in the evening told 25-year-old Gabby Velas of Orlando that the water scooter crashed after trying to outrun the boat in a game of chicken. Velas ran to see what happened when a half dozen ambulances and fire trucks came racing up to the tour boat, which was docked next to her Clearwater Beach hotel.

The passengers said the tour boat's captain tried to cut the engine to avoid a crash, but it was too late, Velas said.

Investigators were still talking to the tour boat's captain late Saturday to better understand what happened.

Rodriguez said all the Tropics Boat Tours cruises today were canceled out of respect to the deceased.

Wildlife commission spokesman Baryl Martin said the incident should remind everyone of the hazards of personal watercraft.

This is the second fatal accident this month involving a water scooter in the area. Fifteen-year-old Katie Yale of Seminole died after a Labor Day collision between the inner tube she was riding on Lake Seminole and a personal watercraft.

In March 2012, Victor Vazquez, 40, of Indian Rocks Beach died after the personal watercraft he was riding struck a channel marker in the Intracoastal Waterway in Indian Rocks Beach. Vazquez was a passenger. The driver, Robert Turnbull, 35, of Indian Rocks Beach, was intoxicated, authorities said, and was charged with boating under the influence, manslaughter and vessel homicide.

In January 2012, Ryan Burke, 30, of Lutz was killed and a woman was injured when two personal watercrafts collided on Lake Hobbs in Lutz. Burke and the woman had been riding at night and not wearing life jackets, authorities said, in violation of state law.

"Slow down. It increases your reaction time and gives you space that could save your life," Martin said. "People think these things are toys, but they're not."

Times staff writer Will Hobson contributed to this report.

Two dead in Clearwater after personal watercraft collides with tour boat 09/28/13 [Last modified: Sunday, September 29, 2013 12:22am]
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